Most novels require some sort of research. If you’re writing a novel set in a different historical period, obviously you need to do a lot of research. But regardless of what genre of novel you’re writing, things come up that you need to investigate (with perhaps the exception of fantasy, because you can make everything up).
How do you milk a snake?
For example, your protagonist may be making a soufflé, so you need to find out how to make one so it sounds authentic, or you’ve decided that one of your characters will be a snake milker, and as you know very little about how to milk snakes (yes, there is such a profession) you google 'snake milking.'
From there, you find an interesting article on the history of snake milking and the story of Sam the Snake Milker who’s been bitten thousands of times while milking snakes and has the scars to prove it. This then leads to an article about which drugs are made from snake venom, which then directs you to a story about a farmer who was rushed to hospital by helicopter after being bitten by a snake, and was saved in the nick of time by an injection of anti-venom.
All very fascinating and will no doubt make you a hit at your next dinner party, but you probably only need a quarter of that information to write your character convincingly. We writers call it going down the research rabbit-hole.
What I’ve learned from research
I love research, and I think most writers do, because you find out so many interesting things you may not have learned otherwise. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt as a result of research for my novels:
More about guns than I will ever need to know
How to trace an adopted relative
Everything I ever wanted to know about llama farming, but was afraid to ask (this was for a novel that I abandoned, but I am keeping the information because you never know…)
How to snort cocaine, what it feels like to snort it, what are the effects, how to tell when someone has used it. In fact, I’ve googled ‘effects of cocaine’ so many times I’m expecting the CIB officers on my doorstep any time
How to poison someone and get away with it. (If you want to know, you’ll have to wait until my next novel A Time For Penance is published in May). My partner often directs nervous glances my way at meal times.
Back to the 90s
In my novel, my protagonist goes back 20 years in time, from 2015 to 1995, so a lot of my research involved going on a nostalgia trip back to the 1990s. Obviously I was alive then – I was 40 and raising a family – so I can rely to a certain extent on my memory, but I found I had forgotten so many aspects of daily life in the 90s – what sort of food was popular, what TV shows did we watch, what music was playing on the radio, who were the movie stars in the news – all the popular culture stuff that’s important for the background and setting of the novel.
The main difference between 1995 and today was the lack of instant connectivity. The internet was still very new – the average man in the street didn’t have access. I remember getting dial-up in about 1999. So of course no social media, and until the end of 1995 mobile phones were still bricks that required you to be of Amazonian proportions to carry them around.
So people went to the library to get information and used public phone boxes if they weren’t at home. In that sense life was simpler and easier to write about, and not having the instant contact between people suited the narrative of my novel.
Those were the days
And once I started doing the research, all the memories of life in the 90s flooded back. I remembered CDs, cameras, photo albums, videos and video cassette recorders, Gameboys, floral leggings, (no-one, I repeat no-one, looks good in floral leggings), huge bookstores, American sitcom Friends (my daughters loved it and mealtimes had to be planned around it), high-waisted jeans, bike shorts, the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, grunge music and fashion, Princess Diana worship, the beginning of the coffee culture, women’s magazines that actually contained articles worth reading, Poptarts, the proliferation of low-fat snack foods (it’s now acknowledged that they’re not good for your health at all, being full of sugar, usually high fructose corn syrup), roller blades, the Macarena… the list goes on.
The thing about the nineties is that it’s long enough ago to warrant reminiscing and nostalgia and for the Gen Ys, it was their childhood, and they’ll be telling their grandchildren about the ‘good ole days, back in the 90s.’
Procrastination – I’ll deal with it tomorrow
Because it’s so enjoyable, writers often use research as a procrastination tool to avoid starting their novel. At some point you have to tear yourself away and start writing. Stopping your novel to research a point can also be dangerous and send you back into a maze of irrelevant information and time wasting.
When I come to a topic I need to know more about, I will often write RESEARCH in the spot as a placeholder, write what I think are the facts and come back to the research later when I’ve finished the draft.
How far would you go for research?
And so far, I’ve only mentioned armchair research. Many writers go out and get real life experience for maximum authenticity, learning how to shoot firearms, scuba dive, even fly a helicopter. I wrote a post about this: WRITER'S RESEARCH - HOW FAR WOULD YOU GO?
Get thee to a winery
But as I’m a bit of a wimp when comes to physical pursuits, I’ll stick to Mr Google. Unless I write a novel set in a winery…
Have you ever been impressed by the amount of research that’s gone into a novel? Or fallen down the rabbit hole yourself? I’d love to read your comments in the comments box below.
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.